Two decisions in the translation of Lectures on the Will to Know

LWKGraham Burchell has provided another excellent translation of a Foucault lecture course – Lectures on the Will to Know. I worked on that course extensively in the French and have over the past few days spent a lot of time checking each reference to the English. In many instances I adopted his translation over my own, and was continually impressed by how he rendered difficult, fragmented and obtuse passages – this course is based on Foucault’s manuscript, not on transcribed tapes, so it’s not always fully worked out. But there are two decisions made for the English translation that are worth reflecting on. He discusses both in the “Translator’s Note”.

The first is that the French edition had the pages of the manuscript the editor Daniel Defert used as the basis for the text in the margins. The course is based almost exclusively on this manuscript Foucault rather than on the tape recordings used for previous courses. This is because there were no tape recordings available. There are pages of manuscript missing in part or whole, and while the previous volumes used the manuscript to supplement the spoken record, here there is only one of the two sources to draw upon. Burchell rightly says that “except where a page break corresponds with a new paragraph or section, the precise point at which one page ends and another begins is not indicated. This lack of precision inevitably increases with a translated text”. He then continues: “Without the original manuscript or an accurate copy ready to hand, the manuscript pagination is of no use to the English reader and is an unnecessary hindrance to smooth reading” (p. xiv). But while it may have been a hindrance it just isn’t the case that it is ‘no use’. What use was it to the French reader, when the manuscript is not publicly accessible? For the English reader the most useful thing about the manuscript page would have been to allow quick access to the corresponding passage in the French.

Other translations of lecture courses – Heidegger’s being the obvious example – have the pagination of the original language in margins or running heads. Any passage can then quickly be found in the original. This isn’t the case in the Foucault lecture courses – not just this course, but generally. The publisher and series editor should be blamed for that choice. With this course, the manuscript pagination would have been helpful to substitute for that gap. Burchell gives the example of the Loeb parallel language texts of the classics, noting that there is “the pagination of the source text alongside the original Greek or Latin, but omits it from the accompanying English translation” (p. xiv). But this is a poor parallel – because the Loeb has the original and translation on facing pages, you can read across. Indeed, the whole point of the Loeb is the ability to find any passage in both languages; something this English translation of Foucault makes a whole lot harder.

The second is the transliteration of Greek terms. Foucault’s manuscript did not transliterate, and Defert respected this. Burchell has chosen to transliterate. Interestingly, both Defert and Burchell cite a passage from Bernard Knox’s Oedipus at Thebes, though draw different conclusions. So, the French reader must grapple with the Greek alphabet, while the English reader doesn’t need to. Heidegger translations don’t transliterate his Greek. Does this tell us something about the sense of the audience between languages and thinkers? Again the comparison given as a rationale is inexact. Burchell notes that he is “following the practice of the French editors of the already published volumes of Foucault’s lectures” (p. xiv). But the previously published lectures are on the basis of editors listening to, and transcribing, recordings. Orally, πόλις and polis sound the same. Unless we checked Foucault’s manuscript for those courses, we don’t know the choice he made. We do know that his last writings, such as the final two volumes of the History of Sexuality, transliterated Greek words. But one of the things that is striking about the course in question, from 1970-71, is that it shows a Foucault deeply familiar with Greek texts, much earlier than had previously been acknowledged. And that his own notes for the course kept Greek characters.

These are minor issues, and unlikely to inconvenience most readers. Indeed, the second will undoubtedly be of significant benefit for many. But I felt both deserved some comment. Let me reiterate the praise of Burchell’s translation though – that alone will make the course far more accessible.

This entry was posted in Books, Foucault's Last Decade, Michel Foucault, Publishing. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Two decisions in the translation of Lectures on the Will to Know

  1. Pingback: Foucault’s Last Decade – second update | Progressive Geographies

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